THE CITY AND THE CROSS
A Tale of Two Cities
Within every city there are two “cities” that coexist: the first includes all that is good and right and beautiful; the second is everything that we long to see changed. I can see both cities from my backyard.
Less than a mile as the crow flies is Richmond’s skyline, a disproportionately large outcropping of buildings for a city of its size. These structures symbolize much that is good and right. They are places of commerce, industry, politics and law. They enable work and increase efficiency. Thousands upon thousands make their living in these spaces, exchanging their skills and effort for food and clothing and shelter—the barter system of the 21st Century.
Yet the same towers of concrete and steel also represent much of what we long to see changed. Babel-like, they stretch to the heavens, and they beckon us: “Come and make a name for yourself” (Gen. 11:4). Behold these modern marvels! How stunning and magnificent is the mind of man! How self-sufficient is he! How… God-like. Thus are these towers turned into temples by our insatiable greed and our pride.
Closer to Home
The row of houses behind me is much closer than the skyline, and the two cities coexist there too. The block is lined with rundown homes long abandoned by their owners. Some left because they wanted to escape desegregation. Others left to flee the rise of poverty and drugs and violent crime. (By the 90s Church Hill had the worst murder rate in a city that had the second worst murder rate in the nation.) Today these dilapidated houses are a parable of the second city. The signs on all their doors read, “Condemned”—a message for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. This is what happens when people stop seeking the peace and prosperity of the city where God has sent them (Jer. 29:7).
Yet the block is also bursting with fresh potential. Over the past two years more than twenty homes have been built for low- to moderate-income families. Thanks to the work of several non-profits and the partnership of a nearby hospital, this formerly forsaken area is once again teeming with life. There are certainly some important cautions to consider, but no one should be sad about new homes being built. Empty lots and collapsing buildings don’t help anybody. As new families take up residence here, this part of the city once again has the chance for neighbors and for neighborliness.
But we have a long way to go. Just this afternoon my wife was walking outside with our two toddlers when a drive-by shooter fired five shots at a pedestrian on our block. The second city was clawing at our doorstep with all its ugliness. In truth, that city lives inside our home too, for much of what happens under my roof falls into the “things we long to see changed” category—veni Domine Iesu.
Around the Corner
About a block from us sits a building that belongs to the people of Mount Olivet Church. Since 1899 they have been “spreading the word around the world that Jesus is alive.” Like so many homes in the area, their building shows many signs of age. Its old bricks have been covered by a mural with symbols of the Christian faith and the names of the children who helped paint it. But in the middle, there is this:
I reminded my wife of that picture after the frightening incident earlier today. It’s tempting to laugh at its message in the face of all the evil in the world, but the mural conveys deep truth. The streets are safe for those who belong to Jesus. He is Immanuel, God with us to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20), and he told us that we do not need to fear those who can only “kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28). Through faith in Jesus we are citizens not of this second city only, but also of the city that is to come (Heb. 13:14).
This is the good news that led Justin Martyr (as he is now known) to announce so boldly to his Roman executioners, “You can kill us, but you cannot harm us.” The Romans then whipped him before beheading him, but Justin was proved right by their actions. They had done him no lasting harm, for they could only kill his body, but they couldn’t touch his citizenship in the city with everlasting foundations, whose builder and architect is God (Heb. 11:10).
Above Them All
If you stand facing that mural and allow your eyes to drift toward the heavens, you’ll come to a cross that rests atop the church’s steeple. From where I sit, the cross seems to stand above the city, and this is fitting in more ways than one.
It reminds me that the second city, with all that we long to see changed, was fully judged on the cross. Like the dilapidated buildings around me, the second city stands condemned. Sin’s days are numbered. Evil has an expiration date.
Yet in this way the cross is also a powerful symbol of hope. It is a reminder that Jesus transformed Rome’s instrument of death into a source of eternal life. And if Jesus can do that, then there is no limit to what he can redeem!
Ultimately, the cross above the skyline reminds me that Richmond belongs to Jesus (Rev. 11:15). He is at work here to saturate this place with the knowledge of his glory (Hab. 2:14). In that day there will be only one city, the New Jerusalem, which is the people of God dressed like a bride ready for her husband (Rev. 21:2). God will come to live in our midst (Rev. 21:3), and he will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or pain—for the second city will have passed away forever (Rev. 21:4). And one the seated on the throne says, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5)—which is perhaps just another of saying, “God is here. The streets are safe.”
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.